Leaders at an Austin-based nonprofit that operates 16 shelters for immigrant children in Texas considered ending its relationship with the federal government amid furor over President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy, the organization’s CEO told the American-Statesman on Thursday.
“We said, what if we … didn’t take these kids?” said Juan Sanchez, founder and CEO of Southwest Key Programs, referring to the children separated from their parents after illegally crossing the U.S. border. “What if we just gave the whole thing up? And what if we just continue to do what we’re supposed to be doing?”
The group chose to keep its federal contracts, despite a flurry of criticism for taking in immigrant children separated from their parents under the policy ended Wednesday by Trump.
“Ultimately, the feelings of the majority of our staff was we’ve got to take care of these kids because our concern was what happens if we’re not around,” Sanchez said. “Who’s going to take care of these kids? Where are they going to go? The last thing we wanted them to do was spend any more time in detention, any more time in those cages that they had built for these kids, and we wanted them to be in a place where they’re taken care of, and we communicate with the families and we could reunite them the minute we had the opportunity to do that.”
After U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy in April and promised to prosecute anyone who enters the U.S. illegally, which meant removing children from adults, shelter operators contracting with the federal government, including Southwest Key, saw an influx of children separated from their parents.
Since the policy took effect, more than 2,000 children have been separated from adult family members along the entire length of the border. Between 500 and 600 of the children were in Southwest Key facilities Thursday, Sanchez said. The organization operates 26 shelters for immigrant children in three states under federal contracts.
Most of the children housed in Southwest Key shelters arrived in the U.S. without parents or guardians.
Responding to criticism
Southwest Key didn’t issue a statement publicly opposing the family separation policy until after Trump signed the order Wednesday ending the practice. “Southwest Key Programs does not support separating families at the border,” the organization said in a statement shared on Facebook.
Sanchez said the statement was drafted before Trump took action, but that because of the group’s federal contracts, he and others at Southwest Key were in a difficult position and wrestled with how to respond to the criticism.
“As an agency, taking a position is something that had been difficult for us,” he said. “But what we do know is that children operate best, and parents operate best, when the family is together, and they thrive when the family is together. … Now, my hope is that it happens very quickly. When they say, ‘You now can reunite these families with their kids,’ we’re ready to go. … We’re very excited about that.”
Southwest Key was scrutinized for a reported 150 health inspection violations at its shelters, and in one case, as reported by Texas Monthly, the organization hired a case manager who had been arrested for possession of child pornography.
“We had 150 violations of standards, but I want to make it very clear: That’s over a three-year period of time, and it is responding to 75,000 policies that we have to adhere to,” he said. “So when you’ve got 75,000 different standards that you have to meet, and you have 150 violations over a three-year period, go look at any other licensed child care facility or detention facility, whatever, and see how many violations you find. We don’t like the fact that there were violations. Every one of those 150 have been taken care of, and they’ve been corrected.”
As for the former case manager, Sanchez said the organization conducted a background check.
“We didn’t get any response when we did the background check, so we hired him,” he said. “But as soon as we found out that he was an inappropriate employee, we terminated him right away.”
‘Helping my friends’
Southwest Key will receive $995 million in federal money for a three-year period ending this fall to run its shelters. Southwest Key received $99.7 million in federal dollars on May 10, shortly after the administration’s policy took effect, and $147. 8 million on June 11, according to federal records.
Sanchez himself earns more than $770,000 annually. “We bring in $450 million, and I have 7,000 employees to manage,” he said, “and we’re in eight states in the country, and we have been doing this for 30 years. I think the salary’s justifiable.”
Sanchez said he will assemble a team of experts from around the country to help the nonprofit determine what, if anything, it should do differently in response to the family separation controversy.
Sanchez said he was inspired to start the nonprofit, which also operates the public charter school East Austin College Prep as well as youth justice and wellness programs, after seeing kids in his hometown of Brownsville get into trouble and lose the career dreams they once had.
“I told myself … when I grow up, I’m going to be a probation officer, or I’m going to do something that helps my friends,” he said. “And so when you look at what Southwest Key does now, whether it’s education, whether it’s unaccompanied minors or whether it’s juvenile justice, it’s helping my friends.”